The coronation ceremony of any king in Nigeria, from the Alaafin of Oyo to the Emir of Zazzau, and from the Obi of Onitsha to the Oba of Lagos, has remained a high point of pomp and pageantry. And this is especially so because it represents a traditional and cultural manifestations of all that is aesthetically appealing in the cultural heritage of the people. However, beyond the significance of the kings as the custodians of the cultural heritage of their people, little else seems to interest an average modern Nigerian in the institution of traditional rulers. And the reason is not far-fetched: in the context of modern democratic government, traditional rulers and the institution of monarchy seem to be in steady decline. That decline is further accentuated by the inglorious roles traditional rulers in Nigeria have played in the politics with history stretching from being accomplices in slave trade, their dubious role in the colonial state and to cultural imperialism in time and space. One critical consequence of this however, is that it leaves the people without grassroots influence and an abiding local governance model. Even the local government that ought to be the tier of government that brings governance closer to the people is comatose.
And then a new Olu of Warri got coronated; and we need to rethink the significance of traditional rulership, national development and inter-generational dynamics. The 21st Olu of Warri, Prince Utieyinoritsetsola Emiko—the Ogiame Atuwatse III—is not only very young at just 37, he is also a Christian, demonstrated a very deep sense of history, so far, and a reflective understanding of Nigeria’s economic trajectory. And in this knowledge society of the twenty-first century, the new king breathes freshness that radiates this, according to a commentator, in terms of his age, his exposure, his educational pedigree and stature. It is heartening to see a monarch that resonates with the Nigerian youth because he understands technology, entrepreneurship and the role of women that departs from the patriarchal denigration of tradition. I come to this unique coronation from the perspective of a reflective question: In what deep sense does the ascension of Ogiame Atuwatse III, and his rousing coronation speech, signal a reawakening of national consciousness and a stimulation of an inter-generational consciousness?
For all those with an abiding interest in cultural studies, and the cultural antecedents of the Yoruba nation, the historical trajectory of the Itshekiri nation should arouse deep interest. That interest has always been constant for me as I follow the political and cultural twists and turns of my Yoruba nation. The relationship between Itshekiri and Yoruba goes beyond the Itshekiri language being Yoruboid, and deeply affiliated with the Yoruba dialects from Ijebu to Owo. The Itshekiri also followed through with a political relationship with the Yoruba. In the 1959 pre-independence elections, the Itshekiri political class stood solidly with Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Action Group. That relationship consolidated the cultural affiliation of the two nations. Unfortunately, the alliance between the two nations led to serious historical consequences. Those who opposed the alliance between Itshekiri and the Yoruba during those elections conspired and deposed the then Olu of Warri, Olu Erejuwa II, Wilson Gbesimi Emiko—the new king’s grandfather. The deposed king found refuge with the then Oba Akenzua II of Benin Kingdom. And both of then subsequently placed a curse on not only the Itshekiri nation but the whole of Nigeria. It is more than interesting that the two nations were not only bound by political affiliation but also spiritual debilitation. Yoruba history also narrates the curse placed on the nation by Alaafin Aole who was betrayed by his lieutenants, and who condemned the nation to many years of self-inflicted treachery.
And so, the first royal act of the new king, with all historical and spiritual urgency, was the repealing of the curse that had supposedly undermined the development of the Itshekiri nation, and her significant place in the larger national dynamics of the Nigerian state. This tells a significant story in itself. And it is the narrative of the emergence of new and vibrant young rulers with the unstated mandate of redressing the denigration of the monarchy by those who subjected it to the base greed that undermined transformative politics. From the Ooni of Ife to Oba of Benin and the Obi of Onitsha, and from the former Emir of Kano to the recent Olu of Warri, we have new monarchs who are determined to bring the traditional rulership back into grassroots governance dynamics for the well-being of their people. And these new and youthful monarchs are determined to facilitate this transformation of the monarchy through anchoring either the cultural heritage or religious affiliations to modern technological and entrepreneurial knowledges. The former Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, often challenged some of the theological interpretations of Islam that seems blatantly anti-developmental and inhumane. The Ooni of Ife has been calling on his entrepreneurial competence in managing his domain and the Yoruba. The Pentecostal affiliation of the new Olu of Warri was obvious in all his coronation actions and speech. In reversing the ancient curse, the Ogiame Atuwatse III, calls on the African and Pentecostal belief that see a continuum between the physical and the spiritual. It seems clear, therefore, that the Christian king would be looking for a framework that allows him to fuse his faith and his culture into powerful development dynamics on behalf of the Itshekiri.
Two issues are key for me in the interrogation of the coronation speech of the new Olu of Warri. The first is the continuing significance of rethinking traditional institutions as agents of change and development. In development theory, it is an already taken for granted maxim that development is about the people. And the people can essentially be found at the grassroots where modern federal and presidential exigencies, especially in Nigeria, have voided their relevance. One of the significant discourses in Nigeria’s political development is the comatose status of the local government as the third tier of government. I suspect that it is rather too late in time to continue debating whether traditional institutions, like the monarch, is commensurate with furthering democratic ideas and ideals. I also think that despite our modernity, traditional rulership is not an outdated institution that ought to have faded away. On the contrary, traditional institutions offer a fundamental basis for modern traditions that could foster democratization and modernization. This is one mode powerfully signaled by the Ooni of Ife, Obi of Onitsha, Alaafin of Oyo, Emir of Kano, and now the newly coronated Olu of Warri. In his magnificent speech, the Olu of Warri speaks to the need to “reposition the Ikwerre kingdom within the prevailing realities of today’s Nigeria and the world at large.”
There is even a progressive symbolic transformation and modernization of the crown, from corral to silver and now gold. And this, for me, is also a signification of the expected spiritual, physical and developmental trajectory of the Itshekiri nation. The new Olu of Warri is poised to redefine what that throne signifies not in terms of anachronistic traditions but as to what could be done to make distinct progress. That, for me, is the implication of tradition metamorphosing through the dynamics of modern exigencies.
The second key issue which the speech of Ogiame Atuwatse III signifies for me is the search for an inter-generational link that locates a generational capital Nigeria can deploy in nation building and national development. Most poignantly, the new Olu of Warri had the presence of mind to speak directly to the Niger Delta youths who have been nearly damaged by bad politics and misdirected youthful energies. “We must look beyond oil and gas,” the new monarch warns.
And we cannot afford to neglect the significance of women in charting a new developmental path that is not tied to the violent stakes that oil politics suggest. The youths constitute the most significant developmental force that Africa, and indeed Nigeria, can look up to now. As a youthful state in a youth continent, more than 70% of Nigeria’s population falls below 30 years of age. And yet, 34.9% of these youths are unemployed. It therefore become significant that Ogiame Atuwatse III kept linking the past and the present as a seamless interconnected whole.
And in addressing the youth of Itshekiri and the Niger Delta, he threw a fundamental challenge to the Nigerian state. The Yoruba holds the belief that the collective wisdom of the old and the new is what founded Ile Ife. Could that be less so for the transformation of the Nigerian state? As a symbolic representation of the link between the present and the past, the Olu of Warri, with his educational background, competences and royalty, defines a framework around which traditional institutions can become significant development frames of reference for jumpstarting progress. “We must look beyond oil and gas” constitutes a gem of collective wisdom that not only links different generations in complicity to the debilitation of Nigeria, but also challenge us to forge an inter-generational alliance that will take us beyond that complicity.
With the new Olu of Warri, and a cohort of other rejuvenated monarchs, we have a traditional institution that is rising up to its urgent responsibility of redefining the governance tasks that bind the government to the people in a crying call for true, inclusive, and sustainable development, leadership purposefulness and transformational remodeling of governance.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa
Retired Federal Permanent Secretary
& Professor of Public Administration,
For Policy and Strategic Studies
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos